Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

17 February 2012

Our 1960 Journey to A New Life in New Zealand. 7.

This is a diary from 1960. The actual entries are in typewriter font. Added comments are in red. The photographs are from that date, some in colour (expensive in those days).

 [Pontoon and Bum boats at Port Said]
22nd January

Noticeable increase in the tempo of life as the ship neared Port Said. Colour of the sea changed from ultramarine to olive green as we came nearer to the entrance to the Suez Canal. One or two ships waiting for the south bound convoy outside the port included a British MGB [Motor Gun Boat] towed by an admiralty tug. Also an incredibly rusty Yankee tramp. We moored at 1300 and after a long-winded business with the Egyptian authorities we finally got ashore.

Every inch of the waterfront crowded with noisy, leech-like vendors selling everything imaginable - camel hide cases, pouffes, purses, leather camels, Spanish fly!, dirty books,and postcards, and little sisters. We barged our way through these colourful crooks without buying anything (an achievement) and walked around the town. Filthy but very interesting - the children are attractive with beautiful black, curly hair and big brown, bovine eyes. They are mostly bare-footed and wear the filthiest pyjama-type clothes. They seem unduly happy and they come and pose for our photographs with big, white-toothed grins and arms akimbo.

One or two women wear veils and sombre black clothes but this is largely dying out now and it only seemed evident in the folk who were older. Many of the men call themselves by western names such as ‘Jim Happy’ and ‘Jock McGregor’ and they will not leave one alone; however, they do not spit and swear if one does not buy which is very encouraging. They will gaily accept any currency offered to them and they know the exchange rates as well as any banker.

[One ‘gully-gully man’ - a native conjuror - managed to get Ian Park to part briefly with a florin (a two shilling piece similar to a 20 cent coin) which by fast legerdemain he made disappear into thin air. He obviously expected to be rewarded for his dexterity by being allowed to keep the florin but Ian insisted upon it being returned. ‘But I’m Jock McGregor’ protested the Arab. ‘No!’ said Ian, with a threatening Caledonian emphasis, ‘I’m Jock McGregor, and  I... want... my... coin!’ He got it.]

The houses are square with flat tops and the streets are wide with one or two palm trees dotted about here and there. The place does not smell as high as one would expect but this is mid-winter, and relatively cool. We saw no camels but pony carts called garries [sic] and a lot of American taxis.

Coming back to the ship we again ran the gauntlet of vendors and finally on the ship itself we bought a small souvenir, a statuette of Queen Nefertite on an alabaster base. The chap asked 18/- for it and we finally got it for 12/-.

[Now $NZ 1.80 - $1.20. Which was probably twenty times the price we should have paid!]

Watching the north bound ships coming up to the mouth of the canal at twilight is fascinating. I have never seen such a collection of shipping before. [Hardly surprising for a  London boy who’d never been to sea before] All around our ship are the bum-boats. These are full of merchants who bring all their wares out to the ship as soon as it docks and they lay all their merchandise out on the decks to sell. They throw lines up to the ship and haul their goods up to the passengers on them, at the same time shouting the prices and trying to attract attention; they really are very amusing and tenacious and were still around the ship after dark.

Their boats are specially designed with a small cockpit for the man to stand up in and a large, flat deck to display their goods upon. Under the deck are lockers in which they keep their reserve stocks.

That’s about all I can say about Port Said; the people are poor but very good humoured; there seems to be a lot of soldiers about, all armed with .303s. There are large posters of Nasser everywhere. The streets are wide and the buildings large. We saw the plinth on which stood de Lesseps’s statue before the Egyptians pulled it down. Finally we went to bed exhausted but very pleased at having had a good look at Port Said.

 [Port Said waterfront]

[The Suez Canal is 200 kilometres long, the longest canal in the world without locks. It can hold ships with a draft of 18m.

It has been built and rebuilt many times. The first man to have the idea of connecting the Red and Mediterranean Seas was the Pharaoh Necho in 6th century BC. He didn’t complete it. During the Persian Invasion of Egypt (also 6th century), King Darius I ordered it to be completed. The canal consisted of two parts. One part linked the Red Sea to the Great Bitter Lakes, and a second linked the lakes with one of the Nile branches in the Delta. The canal served as a shortcut between Europe and India until the Ptolemaic Era (367-47 BC) but then fell to disrepair. It was re-dug during the rule of the Roman Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD), and later re-dug by the Arab ruler Amr Ibn-Al-Aas (around 700 AD).

It was completely abandoned after the trade route around Africa was discovered by the Europeans. Around 1800, Napoleon's engineers revived the idea of the canal. However, the measurement the French engineers made determined that there was a difference in 10 metres in the altitudes of the seas - Mediterranean and Red Sea - and a large area would be flooded if the construction was carried out. Later, the calculations were proved to be wrong, and Ferdinand de Lesseps undertook the construction. He was granted a decree by the Khedive Said of Egypt to run the canal for 99 years after it was completed. The canal's construction began in 1854, completed around 1867 and  inaugurated on November 17, 1869.

De Lesseps is known as the father of the Suez Canal because of his work. Between its completion and today, there have many changes in ownership of the canal. Ferdinand de Lesseps was its sole controller but he sold shares to many French gentry, and the Khedive also held quite a proportion. The sum of these shares was the Suez Canal Company. In 1874, Benjamin Disraeli took office as British prime minister; he was interested in buying part of the Suez for Britain, but so were several other countries. The Khedive had spent the country's surplus money and needed cash fast. He decided that if someone were to make an offer, he would sell his 177.2 shares of the Suez Canal Company. The French, who would have liked to have owned the canal, took too long raising money; they also didn’t know that Disraeli was a friend to the world's largest banker at the time, Baron Lionel de Rothschild. Rothschild knew of the Khedive's financial state and when Disraeli asked about it, he told him. Disraeli then also asked if he could get a loan for £4 million to buy the shares, and Rothschild agreed.

So, Disraeli, having bought the Khedive's shares, convinced the Queen and Parliament to pay off his debt to Rothschild, and Britain controlled the Suez Canal for the next eighty-four years .

In June 1956, President Gamal Abdul Nasser  - a former army colonel - asked for and was denied money from the United States and Great Britain to build his Aswan High Dam on the Nile. This and the fact that  he believed that ‘Egypt's own canal’ did not belong to them led to Nasser nationalizing the Suez. This took the world by surprise, especially the British and French stockholders who owned the Suez Canal Company. Although Nasser promised that the company would be compensated for its loss, Britain, France, and Israel began plotting to take back the canal and overthrow Nasser as well. Britain, France and Israel united in secret in what was to become known as the tripartite collusion  (something that they denied publicly for many years). Israel opted to participate in the plans against Egypt in order to gain favour in the sight of western nations because the small developing nation was in constant fear of being over-run by Arab nations.

These reactions caused the ‘Suez Crisis’. The tripartite collusion attacked Egypt, with Israeli troops leading the way. Egypt responded by sinking the 40 ships that were in the canal at the time. The U.S. and the Soviet Union both disagreed with the collusion's actions. The Cold War was still going strong so the interference could have determined who had control of the Middle East: the US or the Soviet Union. The United Nations, United States, and Soviet Union all intervened and stopped the Crisis. The collusion was forced to pay reparations to Egypt for the damage, and the canal was reopened under Egyptian control after the sunken ships were cleared out.

In 1960 there were still sunken ships along the canal, and strong anti-British feeling in Egypt. Fortunately we were on a Dutch ship and we didn’t make too much of our English nationality. As we left Port Said I saw, painted along the wharf near the tumbled de Lesseps’s statute, the anti-British slogan ‘Your king is not a king, your king is a woman!’]


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By Don Donovan